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“So, you have fun?” Thermal asked as Dana lifted her hands from the controls. Entering the docking bay was up to the tractor beams of the Troy.

“I don’t know if you’d call it fun,” Dana said. “It was illuminating. I won’t say some of the kids knew more about a Myrmidon than I do, but they knew a lot for their age. And they were just as bratty as I expected.”

“You really don’t like kids,” Hartwell said. “I’m sort of surprised.”

“If I wanted kids I’d have had them a long time ago,” Dana said.

“You’re only twenty,” Hartwell pointed out.

“Most of the girls I want to school with were knocked up by the time they were fifteen,” Dana said. “Which is why Nebraska changed back to having a fourteen year old minimum for marriage. I am one of two blondes who managed to make it out of high school without a belly full. And you couldn’t move around school without running into somebody’s kid. Didn’t care for them then, don’t care for them now.”

“Well, you’re going to have to put up with them for a couple of hours,” Thermal pointed out. “We’re part of the show.”

“I can gargle helium for a couple of hours,” Dana said. “Doesn’t mean I like it.”

* * *

“And this is the main viewing area,” Dana said, leading the group into Bay Nineteen.

The first and most important evolution had been getting all the kids rotated to the head. After that they’d been shepherded, with much need for sheep dogs, through Xanadu, the Troy’s sixty acre water park, the flight caverns which were technically the “air mixing compartment,” a snack in the main civilian cafeteria and now into Bay Nineteen for a view of the main bay.

“Whoa...” was the general response.

Bay Nineteen was a recreational area often used for parties that was in the “innermost” ring of compartments before you got to the main bay. “Outward” was towards the surface of the Troy. Fifteen meters high, twenty deep and fifty meters across at the inner bulkhead, that bulkhead was, deck to overhead, optical sapphire so it looked as if there was nothing between the bay and vacuum.

Dana really didn’t care much for Bay Nineteen. She really liked to have more than a thin sheet of sapphire between her and vacuum. She was fine in EVA but stuff like this made her nervous.

Most of the kids didn’t seem to mind that. They rushed across the darkened room, weaving between tables and ignoring the pleas, threats and orders of their adult chaperones to press their noses against the sapphire.

“Don’t worry,” Thermal said. “They can’t break it.”

“It looks like glass!” one of the mothers said.

“It’s not,” the PAO lieutenant said. “It’s optical sapphire. They couldn’t break it if they hit with at table. An adult couldn’t break it if they hit it with a table.”

It probably would have helped if he didn’t sound so nervous himself.

“Those are the control horns,” Donny said.

“I know that, dummy,” one of the girls snapped. “We all know that.”

“Look, there’s a Constitution going into the parasite bay!”

“What’s that Aggressor doing?”

The six hundred meter battleship had been captured from the Rangora and only recently brought into Terran service after the battle damage was repaired. The captured ship docks and supply ships, which carried parts for the Aggressors, had been very useful.

“It’s docked,” Hartwell said, coming up behind the group of kids. “They don’t fit in the current parasite bays. We’re having to dock them to the control horns for the time being. The new bay in Sector West is going to be refitted to hold four of them.”

The Troy was so big it had its own task force of “parasite” ships. The Constitution class cruisers were two hundred meters long and seventy across. The parasite bay in Zone Two, which also was held the 142nd Boat Wing, held six of the cruisers along with twelve Independence class frigates. The ships stayed in the hull during major battles and were fired out through launch tubes to do clean-up.

“Is that Granadica?” one of the girls asked, pointing to a large cylinder attached to one of the horns.

“Hephaestus, dummy,” Donny said. “Granadica is in the Wolf system. Engineer Mate Hartwell, do you know when they’re going to move Vulcan to the Thermopylae?”

“As soon as they finish the next ship fabber,” Thermal said. “Or that’s the plan. What you learn around the Troy is that plans tend to change. We only found out we were getting the Orion drive about a week before they started installing it.”

“They’re not going to use it while we’re here, are they?” one of the chaperones asked, nervously. “I don’t think I want to be around nuclear explosions.”

“You won’t be,” Hartwell said, chuckling. “You only sort of notice it by the acceleration. Feels like you’re being pressed sideways, usually. And I don’t think there’s a fire planned any time soon.”

“What if the Rangora attack?” another of the mothers asked.

“Then you’re in the safest spot in the system,” Hartwell said, reassuringly. “I’d much rather be on Troy than on the ground.”

The Galactics considered bombardment of the civilian populace by kinetic energy weapons, similar to nuclear bombardment sans fallout, as a perfectly legitimate tactic of war. Which was why most of earth’s cities were gutted. The last attack had been the first in which the enemy didn’t bombard earth. Probably because they were getting slaughtered by the Troy and Thermopylae.

The last attack had been lead by six Assault Vectors, ten kilometer long, one kilometer in diameter, ships specialized for taking gate defenses.

The main defense of the Solar System, until recently, had been SAPL. SAPL was a powerful solar pumped light beam, made up of thousands of mirrors that captured and reconcentrated sunlight into a mining tool and, in a pinch, weapon. Before it developed its own laser system, Troy had been, essentially, the final focus and aiming system for SAPL. Together with its massive store of missiles it had shredded the first two attacks through the gate after it came online.

By the time of the last attack, Troy had developed its own internal laser system composed of dozens of separate emitters that were combined into one very powerful laser. Not as powerful as SAPL which had climbed past one hundred and fifty petawatts of power. But powerful enough when thousands of penetrator missiles crushed the AVs’ shields.

The first squadron of three had done some serious damage to Troy and Thermopylae. But they apparently thought that the Thermopylae wasn’t online yet. And that the Troy didn’t have its own lasers.

With Thermopylae firing SAPL and Troy hammering them with missiles, the AVs, which had taken down dozens of star systems in the Rangora’s recent war with the Glatun, were turned into so much scrap.

The second three had the unfortunate luck to be coming through the gate while Troy was maneuvering past it. They came out at a relatively high velocity and the Troy was right in front of them.

The AVs were, for ships, massive. The Troy outmassed them by several orders of magnitude. What had been left of the most powerful assault ships in the local arm could barely be picked up as scrap. Tugs with powerful tractor beams were still sweeping up the megatons of debris. The main damage to Troy was three very noticeable impact craters. They were currently being repaired.

Neither group had been concentrated on bombing Earth.

“I’m surprised you’re not protecting the diplomats in Erid...” one of the mothers said. “Eradeen...”

“Eridani,” Dana said. “Epsilon Eridani, the fifth star in the Eridani constellation. And the Rangora made it a requirement of the negotiations that the Troy or Thermopylae could not be present.”

“We shouldn’t have agreed,” the mother said. “Let them see what they’re up against.”

“We’d rather they not be absolutely sure,” the Public Affairs lieutenant said, smoothly. “Better that they overestimate us.”

“That’ll be the day,” Dana said.

“Is that guy golfing?” one of the kids asked.

Dana looked where he was pointing and saw the distant figure on top of a shuttle. He certainly appeared to be golfing although at the moment he was just standing on top of the shuttle.

“That’s Tyler Vernon,” Thermal said. “You see him around. That’s his shuttle, the Starfire. And, yes, he appears to be golfing.”

“Isn’t that dangerous?” one of the girls asked. “I mean, an object at rest remains at rest, an object in motion remains in motion. If he hits a golf ball, it’s going to keep bouncing around until it breaks something or hurts someone.”

“The one thing you learn working on the Troy,” Dana said, “is that Tyler Vernon does whatever he wants to do.”

* * *

“This is the sort of reason I get paid the big bucks,” Tyler said over the com. “It doesn’t mean I enjoy it. So I’d appreciate it if you two overpaid clerks would kindly decide once and for all what SAPL should cost internally and be done with it.”

Tyler was video conferencing while golfing. It was simple enough. Emitters in his helmet projected on the interior in such a way as the two executives, the CFOs of SAPL Corp and Apollo Mining, appeared to be sitting about six feet away. Which, if they were physically present, would put them in vacuum. And that was becoming a more and more desirable outcome.

“Conditions change, sir.” Rebecca Mizell was the Chief Finance Officer of SAPL. But while she was attractive for her age, Tyler didn’t have to worry about his innate tendency to defer to pretty women affect him. He’d hired her because she was a revolving bitch. That was often a useful quality in a CFO whose usual job was telling people “no.”

“Our associated costs have been going up and up,” Mizell continued. “Maintenance, especially on the older VLA and BDA mirrors, is becoming a major issue.”

“Then replace them,” Gregory Vance, CFO of Apollo, snapped.

“That reduces the overall power of SAPL,” Mizell said. “Which we’re constrained not to do now that we have AIs capable of handling the additional complexity.”

“So we’re the ones that have to make all the money,” Vance said. “And you get to spend it? There’s something wrong there.”

“That is, however, the nature of the beast,” Tyler said, bending over to tee up again. “There are no other customers for SAPL with the exception of the occasional military use as a weapon. Which you’ll understand we don’t charge for.”

“I was going to raise that issue, sir...”

“And I’m going to slam dunk it,” Tyler said, swinging with a grunt.

“Are you well, sir?” Vance asked.

The CFOs couldn’t see Tyler’s current position. They were getting a video facsimile.

“I’m doing some EVA work,” Tyler said. Which was partially true. Certainly EVA if not work. Although this meeting was work, so... “We’re not going to charge the military for defending the system. What we will charge them for is reasonable costs on producing these things. What we’re also not going to do is back door the costs by increasing SAPL costs to pay for that occasional defense. Which is what it looks as if you’re doing, Miz Mizell.”

“Our corporation is looking at a very poor third quarter,” Mizell pointed out. “Among other things, we again took damage to the SAPL during the battle. The requested increase is, in part, due to that battle damage.”

“Every corporation on earth is looking at a bad third quarter,” Vance said. “We have a bad quarter every time there’s an attack. Consumer confidence goes down even when we, thankfully in this case, don’t lose millions of customers. One down quarter does not give you license to beggar Apollo!”

“Define beggar,” Tyler said, whacking another ball. “Damnit.”

“Sir?” Vance asked.

“Define beggar,” Tyler said. “What’s the percentage of costs to Apollo of SAPL?”

“SAPL absorbs ten percent of our monthly payments,” Vance said. “Ten percent.”

“Which barely keeps us running,” Mizell said. “Among other things, we now have SAPL power in excess of your needs. Sir, if we could just...”

“We’re not going to stop making mirrors unless it’s really beggaring us,” Tyler said. “And I decide the definition of beggar. I’m shooting for an exawatt. At which point, nobody, not even a Troy class, can come through the gate without saying ‘please.’ What we need is additional customers,” Tyler continued, teeing up. “For SAPL that is.”

“That’s not m...” Mizell started to say and then checked herself. She knew one of the axioms of working for Vernon which was his saying: If you say it’s not your job it won’t be. “I’m not sure who besides Apollo would use SAPL.”

“Ah, better,” Tyler said as the ball went through the circle. “Argus, bring in David Skiles, please.”

“Mister Skiles is in a meeting,” the AI replied.

Argus had been the main AI for SAPL until a year before when it had suffered the AI equivalent of a nervous breakdown. Running SAPL was a finicky task but there were points at which “finicky” became “obsessive” followed by “paranoid” and “psychotic.”

Argus had, fortunately, been removed from responsibility for SAPL at the “paranoid” stage. It now handled LFD’s business affairs. Which meant it had to deal with people. Since people were inherently chaotic, it couldn’t get too obsessive and do its job. The therapy seemed to be working.

It still wasn’t getting close to SAPL control any time soon.

“I’m his boss,” Tyler said, placing another ball. “Break in.”

“Technically, as Chairman of the Board...”

Apparently not working quite well enough.

“Argus, I will pull your core again,” Tyler said.

“Breaking in now.”

“You rang?”

David Skiles had been the CEO of SAPL for three years now. A former Army general, he knew approximately nothing about lasers when he was hired. What he did know was running big operations. And while SAPL was simple at one level, it was a very big operation.

“David, Mizell says you guys are going broke,” Tyler said.

“That’s not quite...”

“We’re not going broke, sir,” Skiles said. “What’s happening is that we’re exceeding Apollo’s needs thus Apollo is no longer paying for all of our output. That means our cash flow to operations ratio is dropping sharply coupled with some maintenance costs that are starting to creep in more and more. That means that to maintain profitability, we need to either a. stop producing more mirrors, b. increase costs to Apollo, c. find customers for the additional power, d. find some other source of funding. Right now, we want to increase the passed-on costs to Apollo. That’s the simplest short-term solution. At some point we either need to find major new uses for SAPL or stop building mirrors. The really serious maintenance needs are just starting to hit. Since you don’t want any of the VLA taken offline...”

“I suspect I should just be talking to the CEOs,” Tyler said, taking another swing. He was getting tired which just meant he really need to work on his game. “But I’ll take a swing at it. Vance, what’s the possibility of increasing Apollo’s work in the system?”

“We’re reaching a point of market saturation, sir,” Vance said. “We’re supplying something like sixty percent of the system’s raw material needs. In orbitals we can supply at a lower cost than anyone else and we more or less have a lock on that market. But that market continues to be almost entirely military based and although everyone wants the system defended, there’s only so much money there. We even supply a good bit of groundside raw materials but that means dropping it into the well which has fuel penalty costs associated.”

“Didn’t we look at know...dropping it?” Tyler asked.

“Controlled hard reentry has been looked at and discarded, sir,” Vance said. “There are functional issues with it as well as marketing.”

“People don’t like rocks dropping out of the sky for some reason,” Skiles said. “Sir, we really need to stop making mirrors. Just a pause while more orbital infrastructure gets built. Probably two years and then we’ll get back in the game.”

“How long at current rate until you guys go into reverse cash flow?” Tyler asked.

“By FY 27 Q2,” Skiles said. “At that point, given our projection of Apollo’s needs, rising maintenance costs and mirror production costs we’ll be in the red. We’ll be bankrupt about FY 28 Q1.”

“Well, we don’t want that,” Tyler said, walking carefully to the side of the shuttle. “I’d have to buy my own company. You’re asking for an increase to...two dollars a terawatt?”

“That would nearly double our costs,” Vance snapped.

“I can do basic math, Vance,” Tyler said, mildly. He let the club hang in mid space and reached down to grab the ladder. “What’s that do for you, David?”

“It will put off the red for two more years,” Skiles said. “But we’ll eventually be back to this point. And that’s assuming no unexpected maintenance costs.”

“New customers,” Tyler said, grabbing his club and making his way to the hatch. “SAPL and Apollo.”

“We’re looking at new customers,” Skiles said. “But there’s no much need for an orbital laser except, well, in orbit.”

“Do you even have a sales force?” Tyler asked. Getting through an airlock carrying a driver was a pain in the butt.

“Not as such,” Skiles said. “No. But Apollo is about the only people in orbital manufacturing and mining. Nobody else wants to invest given that most of the stuff is considered a target.”

“There’s got to be something,” Tyler said cycling the airlock and stepping into the luxurious interior of the Starfire. “Ground side mining? I saw where Georgia...Georgia! Was making a dug in state disaster center. Did we bid on digging it for them?”

“That would be Apollo, sir,” Skiles pointed out. “They have the mining experience. Even if we did it, we’d need tugs, which are Apollo’s and mining mirrors, Apollo’s, and experts. Apollo. Given ground side environmental regulations, Apollo might need an entire new division.”


“We haven’t looked at it that I’m aware,” the CFO said. “But I’m not in sales. That’s not saying it’s not my job...”

“Just outside your knowledge base,” Tyler said. “David, I want more customers for SAPL or more work for Apollo to continue to pay for SAPL. Get with Mark and figure that out. I’m hearing a lot of thinking inside the box. We didn’t get to this point by thinking inside the box. I want ground side projects. I want Apollo looking at value added materials. There’s all these kids running around. Apollo toy division?”

“Toys are normally, well, plastic,” Mizell said.

“Used to be metal,” Tyler said, sitting down still in his suit. He started to strip off his gloves. “Went to plastic cause it’s cheaper. The way we make metal that might have turned around, who knows?

“We’re going to have to be boosting a lot of stuff out of the well to support the Fleet. If we’re being paid for that, we can drop stuff down into the well at virtually no cost. But just bringing down metal makes no sense. Chairs? Tables? Buildings? What does earth need? I saw an article in the WSJ talking about the lack of civilian materials. ‘The Affluence Problem’ or something. We lost a bunch of material in the cities and we haven’t been producing any. Cost of new home and business furnishings have nearly tripled compared to pre-war. That’s a market Apollo needs to look at.

“And, yeah, Vance, before you scream, it’s on Apollo. I want you to look at giving them a hand, David. Do we need a new division? Think outside the box, people. When this war is over, we’re going to need to be poised to go into civilian manufacture. Companies throughout history have screwed that up. Apollo and SAPL aren’t going to. Speaking of SAPL, though.

“The main reason I want to up the power continuously, just keep making mirrors until the sun is starting to look like a Dyson sphere, is defense. We need to be talking that up and seeing if we can shake the government tree for direct contributions. Okay, we’re beyond what we need for purely commercial reasons. Fine. Let’s see if the government will cough up some money to keep building and maintaining it. God knows they’ve used it enough. Wolf, how’s the Wolf SAPL coming?”

“Nominal,” David answered after a moment. “We’re continuing to about double power levels every year. And the newer designs should be less maintenance intensive than the early ones.”

“We were making it up as we went along,” Tyler said. “Staff cuts? I know I just said ‘build a new division’ but do we really need all the people we’ve got? My experience is that when you first go into something, you throw people at it. Then as you get more efficient you can lose some. Maybe we move them into the new division?”

“I think we’ve been through that period, already,” Skiles answered. “I don’t have any moral issue with cutting people but with the increases you’re asking for in power it’s more like hiring. That’s part of the cost.”

“Is Starbucks still in business?” Tyler asked. He desperately wanted to get out of his suit but it would be hard to segue while still on the phone.

“Yes?” Vance answered.

“They’re big on environmental stuff,” Tyler said. “And knowing them they’re still building outlets. How about ‘all orbital’ espresso makers?”

“We’d need fabber runs,” Skiles pointed out. “Which are being pretty much consumed by the military.”

“Figure it out,” Tyler said. “We can free up fabber runs if we sweet talk the right admirals. People need...stuff even in a war. Get with Wal-Mart. Get some civilian production going. Shake the government money tree since we’re beyond commercial use for the time being. Be honest about it and don’t get greedy, Mizell. We’re just asking for money to do upkeep and production past commercial needs. When commercial needs catch up, we drop the amount we need from the government. Apollo and LFD both have lobbyists on payroll. Use ’em. I’m done here. I’ve got another meeting.”

“Yes, sir,” Skiles said.

“Outside the box!”

* * *

“Hey, kids!” Tyler said, entering Bay Nineteen.

The view had apparently not palled despite the fact that he was late. Most of the kids were glued to the sapphire, pointing to all the activity that was going on in the main bay. They more or less ignored him.

“Uh...Mister Vernon?” a lieutenant said. He’d been standing near the door watching the controlled mayhem.

“The same,” Tyler said, looking around the room. There were two Navy officers, the LT and an ensign, in blues and a couple of pilots in flight suits. Make that a coxswain and an engineering mate from the tabs. Those two were answering most of the kids’ questions. The cox, who was female, looked like she was getting a little ragged. Come to think of it, he vaguely recognized her but he couldn’t place where.

“I didn’t know you were planning on visiting, sir,” the lieutenant said. “We were getting ready to wrap this up...”

“I know your schedule,” Tyler said. “I’m glad I’m not too late. I’ll need to interrupt it a bit since I am. Paris, lights up, please. Slowly. If I could have your attention!”


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